BEIRUT, Lebanon – One of the most revered clerics in the Shiite Muslim faith and a spiritual mentor to the Lebanese political organization Hezbollah passed away Sunday in a southern Beirut hospital, the nation’s official news agency reported.
Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah was 74.
He had been ill and frail for years. In hospital, he had been bleeding internally for days, the official National News Agency reported.
Once considered the unquestioned spiritual leader of the powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah, Fadlallah had been steadily drifting away from radical Islamist politics for years, instead espousing relatively progressive views on gender relations, women’s social role and family life.
He spoke out against domestic violence – including verbal abuse – and in favor of women in the workplace.
His death highlights a vacuum of spiritual leadership within Lebanon’s Shiite community and likely will spur a power struggle within the religious establishment.
In addition to followers and influence, high-ranking Shiite clerics compete for funds, and Fadlallah’s mostly middle-class supporters lavished his charitable organization with cash, analysts say.
Lebanon’s Shiites have been in spiritual turmoil since the 1978 disappearance of the Shiite cleric Musa Sadr. Some worry that more radical elements will step in.
Hassan Nasrallah, political leader of Hezbollah, is a mid-ranking cleric unqualified to issue religious edicts, though he is revered as a quasi-spiritual figure by many Lebanese Shiites. Within Hezbollah’s political and social orbit, many officially choose Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, as their marja, or source of emulation.
Fadlallah is best known to Americans as the black-turbaned cleric accused of masterminding the bombing of a United States Marine barracks in 1983. He strenuously denied any connection to the attack, which killed 241 Americans. Though he was critical of U.S. foreign policy, he had begun speaking out against Iranian policies.
“I think the current Iranian president lacks diplomatic skills, and I think he creates problems for Iran,” he said of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a 2008 interview.